Brian Canlis

Restaurateur

Seattle

Brian Canlis owns and operates Canlis, which has been in his family since his grandfather established the restaurant in 1950. But Canlis wasn’t always there helping run the family business. His education took him everywhere from New York to Austria, and Canlis joined the Air Force and lived in Alaska, Japan, Kyrgyzstan and Korea before landing his final assignment: leading an elite protocol squad that played host to world leaders and international heads of state. While he loved his Air Force One gig, Canlis returned home to Seattle to join his brother and take the reins of the family-owned restaurant. That was in 2005, and he remains a major player in the Seattle culinary scene. Canlis has appeared in everything from saluting the president on CNN to being a guest judge on Bravo TV’s Top Chef.

  • On March 11, 2013
    Jordan Lawson is now following Brian Canlis
  • On March 11, 2013
    Andi Berens is now following Brian Canlis
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What are Brian Canlis’ favorite Seattle museums?

    I live next to the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. It’s an outdoor, fairly large park that’s on the water. It’s free — you can just walk through it. You can grab a coffee and go for a walk, and look at the skyline, look at these gorgeous massive sculptures, and you’re outside. I probably walk through that thing once a week with my dog. I love the sculpture park.

    The Wing Luke Museum is the history of the Asian-American culture in Seattle, which is so prominent and such an important part of who we are. It’s next to Maneki restaurant. It’s a cool museum — just the design, the architecture and the beauty of it is great. And it’s educational. I love the Wing Luke.

    There’s a brand-new one that just opened called the MOHAI — it’s actually an old museum that closed for a few years and just reopened in a new space right in the middle of Seattle — the Museum of History and Industry. It’s fun. It’s what makes Seattle Seattle. It’s got the original “R” from the Rainier Brewery and old planes. It’s just a fun history of Seattle and how we came to be this city that we are.

    The Museum of Flight is incredible. It’s only about 15 or 20 minutes south of Seattle. They have an Air Force One there and an SR-71. It’s like going to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; it’s almost that big. There are giant airplanes hanging everywhere.

    Almost as cool, but very different — it’s not a museum, but very cool — is driving to the Boeing airplane factory, which is about 25 minutes north of here, and watching them assemble airplanes on the floor. You can take tours. It’s the largest building in the world. It’s bigger than Disneyland. This is all true, by the way; I was blown away when they told me these statements. It’s bigger than the Vatican. It’s bigger than the Pentagon. You watch airplanes being made, like a dozen at a time, and you can’t believe the scope of it. This is where airplanes are born. I went like six months ago, and I couldn’t believe I’d never been — I was blown away by it.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What are Brian Canlis’ favorite Seattle seafood restaurants?

    The single best piece of fish I’ve ever eaten in my life was at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. They do a smoked salmon that’s smoked to order — it’s mind-blowing. I’ve never had seafood as good as I’ve had it at The Willows Inn.

    In Seattle — I’m obviously biased, but I think most people can agree — the best seafood can be found at Canlis.

    Other than that, The Walrus and the Carpenter. You know that the Northwest has some of the best oysters in the world. You go to The Walrus and the Carpenter, sit at the bar, and you have oysters and great local fish, and you’re happy.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What are Brian Canlis’ favorite Seattle restaurants?

    I love Spinasse. It’s the perfect neighborhood restaurant. It’s in Capitol Hill. The chef is Jason Stratton. It’s like home. People know your name — I know that’s a line from Cheers. It’s comfortable. It’s Italian. It’s handmade pasta. It’s rustic. It’s like getting a hug from your Italian grandmother that I never had. But yet it’s still refined and it’s still executed with great technique.

    I love Matt’s in the Market. It’s in Pike Place Market. It’s my favorite place for lunch in the city. The produce comes from downstairs in the market stalls. You’ve got a great view of the market. It’s completely Seattle; everything’s Seattle-ish at that restaurant. I love going there myself and I love sending people from out of town there.

    There’s a restaurant called Maneki in the International District. It’s the oldest restaurant in Seattle. It’s over a hundred years old. It’s unbelievable. It’s an adventure. It’s like going to a different country, trying to eat there — all the ways to get a table and how you order. It’s so fun to get out of your comfort zone and go have some of the most beautifully, deliciously prepared food at Maneki.

    The greatest sandwich in the entire country is at Paseo. I’m not the only one who thinks that. It’s one of the things we’re most proud of in this city: this little Cuban restaurant that serves sandwiches. You have to wait an hour to get one and you’re happy to do it. It’s kind of like Shake Shack in New York City.

    There’s a restaurant called Sitka & Spruce that’s everything that’s kind of new and very modern about Seattle cooking. Matt Dillon, what he does with vegetables makes me so happy. The space is in a place called Melrose Market. It’s like a miniature Chelsea Market in Manhattan. You’ve got a cheese monger, a butcher, a coffee shop, an oyster bar and a cool little cocktail bar all in this open little area. There’s a florist!

    Joule is in Freemont and it’s Korean-French. It’s a married couple — he’s French, she’s Korean and she’s the chef. It’s more Korean than French. Oh my goodness, I love Korean food — just the flavors with French technique brought in. It’s lively and fun. Probably my favorite dish I’ve eaten all year was at Joule.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What are Brian Canlis’ favorite Seattle hotels?

    I love the Inn at the Market, which is in Pike Place Market, so you’re in the heart of everything. You wake up and go downstairs and you get, like, an amazing pastry. Really cool.

    There’s another little hotel I love called Hotel Ändra — small, boutique-y, but not too expensive. Great service, great people. Also kind of in the heart of everything.

    The Sorrento is really nice. That’s up on Capitol Hill, which is kind of like your hip neighborhood with some of the best restaurants. Some of the best coffee shops are on Capitol Hill. You’re not in downtown; you’re still in a nice hotel that is in a great neighborhood — probably my favorite neighborhood hotel.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What’s Brian Canlis’ favorite time of year in Seattle?

    Summer — no question — and it’s like four days long. No, it’s a few months. We have like two-and-a-half or three months of perfection: It’s 75 degrees. It’s sunny. It doesn’t rain. The mountains are out. The water is warm. Everyone in Seattle is so happy that we put up with the other nine months of it being cloudy for this three-month period of perfection. No one goes on vacation in the summer here because it’s finally here. It’s the greatest place on earth to be: summer in Seattle.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What are Brian Canlis’ favorite things to do in Seattle?

    We’re really proud of our land, our surroundings and the geography here. So definitely you have to get out into the mountains. You can head either east or west — either way you’ll hit an amazing mountain range. Go into them and explore them; they’re unbelievable. The Olympic Mountains has a rainforest — we have a rainforest an hour away. And we’ve got some of the world’s biggest trees. It’s just so fun to be out in the mountains and the forest.

    At the same time, we’re also surrounded by islands, and all of these islands are so fun to explore. They’re called the San Juan Islands. There are a dozen of them. Every one has its own culture, its own little tiny restaurant scene, its own beauty, and its own adventure. And it’s a different ferry to each one. So definitely, exploring the islands.

    I’m a big-time sports fan. I love the culture here of our fans. Going to a Seahawks game or to a Mariners game is so fun. We have amazing stadiums with great food, and at least one of those teams is a winning team right now. I always encourage people coming from out of town to go see a game. From the stadiums, you have views of the city, of the mountains, of the water. It’s so fun. Even if you don’t like sports, it’s still fun because you kind of explore the city and the whole culture around the stadiums.

    I would say exploring some of the local markets. We have some of the greatest produce in the world right here. Because of all the farmer culture all around the state, we have markets. And not just Pike Place Market, which is the big fancy famous one that everyone goes to, but the neighborhood markets like the Queen Anne Market, the University Market — it’s unbelievable, the local markets. Just go and eat and explore the neighborhoods.

    Our restaurant looks down on Lake Union, and my favorite thing on a summer day is to go rent a kayak on this little lake that we’re on and just explore. There’s restaurants that you can kayak up to, get a meal, have a beer and get back in your kayak, then kayak to another restaurant and get out. You can kind of bar hop in a kayak on a sunny day. It’s the greatest thing ever. That’s really fun.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What does Brian Canlis think makes a successful restaurant?

    I think restaurants that understand the necessity of relationships with guests. What’s happening is that hospitality is turning into a transaction. It’s like you come and you sit down, I’ll give you good service and you give me a tip, then we both go our separate ways. It rings so untrue. Great service is actually being authentic and humble, and entering into relationships at the table and bringing yourself. People have to understand that you actually have to give up yourself in order to serve the guest properly.

    To me, the key is great service. Food is a rule of the game. The food has to be amazing; if it’s not, you won’t win. In a soccer game, if you kick the ball out of bounds, the other team gets the ball — that’s a rule — and eventually, you’ll lose. But you don’t not kick the ball out of bounds to win the game. At halftime, the coach would never say, “Hey guys, let’s go out there” — it’s tied and it’s the World Cup — “this half, we’re going to not kick the ball out of bounds.” The whole team would be like, “Are you serious?”

    The strategy to win is relationship, serving the guest in an authentic way. The food has to be amazing; but the service has to be exquisite. The most common complaint in the country about restaurants is always service. People never remember what they ate; they remember how you made them feel. I think Danny Meyer said that — that’s not me. Successful restaurants make people feel wonderful. They feed them amazing food; but they make them feel great. That is a successful restaurant. And that isn’t necessarily fine dining; that can be a sandwich shop.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What does Brian Canlis love most about his job?

    I love that I get to create the team that I work with. We have about 90 employees, and I get to choose them all. I spend so much time at work, but it’s with people that I’ve been able to hand select. It’s almost like when a new general manager takes over a football team, he gets to work the draft every year and slowly pick his guys. People are like, “It’s been three or four years, so now this is really his team,” because he’s put it together. So now that I’ve been here for five or six years, the team we put together, it’s now my brother’s and my team. It’s not our parents’ team. I get to lead this group of people that I’ve put together who all have the exact same passion and vision that I do. Coming to work, I’m surrounded by people who I completely love because I picked them. That’s the best — working with a team that is running in the exact same direction that you are.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What’s the best meal Brian Canlis has ever had?

    In some ways, the best meal is that hot slice of pizza in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl when the game’s tied. That literally might be the best meal I’ve ever had. But I think the best restaurant experience I had was Din Tai Fung in Shanghai. I was walking in Shanghai with headphones, naturally, and I was kind of lost and I was hungry. I came upon this strip mall — not super fancy looking. I see this sign and it’s this dumpling restaurant, and it looks good. Then outside there’s this framed article from The New York Times, and I’m like, “No way,” and especially in China, you grow skeptical of people calling things “authentic” because around every corner is a new Rolex and a new Louis Vuitton bag that isn’t real.

    So I’m thinking this New York Times article is obviously fabricated to bring suckers like me in. But I’m like, “I’m hungry, so I’ll give it a shot.” It was like an otherworldly experience, and the article is real. The article is about the original restaurant that’s in Taiwan and not in Shanghai. But people train for six months just to be able to work on their dumplings — they go to like dumpling boot camp. It’s like becoming a samurai is becoming a chef in this restaurant. That’s got to be my favorite meal I’ve ever had, my first Din Tai Fung experience.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What’s Brian Canlis’ take on the evolution of fine dining?

    It’s quite the topic right now. I think the role of fine dining is like the tip of the spear for cuisine. It’s what pushes the entire industry forward, and then the rest of eating follows it. I mean if you look at the whole farm-to-table movement, that started in fine dining and now it’s ubiquitous. You look at different areas of sourcing or you look at being micro-seasonal, all these things are fine dining — even molecular gastronomy or modernist cuisine was the tip of the fine-dining spear. Now those techniques — I mean modernist cuisine, their new book is the Modernist Cuisine at Home — so you’ve got Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, and then 10 years later you have the home cook using a circulator. That’s really cool.

    But the one trend in fine dining that makes me uncomfortable is that the chef continues to get elevated at the expense of the guest. When did the restaurant become an altar for the guests to come bow down at? That’s what I don’t like. I think you can be a great chef, be an artist with your food, be the tip of the spear and do mind-blowing things, and still leave the guest at the center of the stage, still revolve around the guest, still say, “We’re here to serve you and we’re going to blow your mind, and we’re going to have fun doing it.”

    I’ve had experiences like that in some of the best fine-dining restaurants in the country, but yet I’ve also had experiences where I’m treated like I’m so lucky to be in the presence of this restaurant. That whole trend of “the guest worships the restaurant” — I don’t like it. I like “the restaurant worships the guest.” That’s hospitality; that’s what makes it fun. Then if you can do that while delivering mind-blowing cuisine and service, then everyone wins, and it’s great. You don’t have to sacrifice the guest to make the world’s best dining experience.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What is Brian Canlis doing in 2013?

    Actually there’s so much changing. We’re making Canlis more Canlis. We’ve spent a lot of time researching and looking at what Canlis was in 1950 and what our grandfather’s vision for this restaurant was. It was a revolutionary restaurant. It was cutting edge in so many ways. We want to re-create that spirit. We want to be younger than ever, even though we’re getting older. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re going to kind of become more of who we are and how we were founded. That gets [my brother] Mark and I really excited.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    How did Brian Canlis get into the restaurant business?

    I grew up in it. I started washing dishes at 13, and then bused tables. The restaurant I own now was originally started by my grandfather, then my dad ran it; so it’s always been a family business for 62 years. Then I went away to high school and didn’t actually come back for 12 years. I went away and I lived in Europe, and I went to [college] on the East Coast, then back to Europe again.

    I joined the Air Force, and I was living in Alaska and Washington, D.C., and then Kyrgyzstan for a while. I kind of had this really cool Air Force career that I was loving; I was working for Air Force One, which was pretty fun and special.

    Then I get a phone call from my brother, who had already come back to work at the family restaurant, and I remember him telling me, “I think we can make Canlis really special. I think we should take a shot at pushing this restaurant into the third generation, and I can’t do it without you.” So I came home to work with my brother to see if we could make Canlis ours, and that was seven years ago.
  • On March 11, 2013
    Brian Canlis answered the question: Brian Canlis

    What kind of shops does Brian Canlis go to when traveling?

    I love shopping at places that have used things in them — not necessarily a thrift store or an antique store. Sometimes, especially like in European cities, you get these shops that are these secondhand little treasures. I like authentic things; and if someone from that country already owned it, then I’m buying something authentic. If I buy something with a brand name, I could’ve gotten it maybe anywhere; but if I buy an old pocket watch that’s made in that city, or a cool leather satchel. I love to find used authentic stuff — that’s my favorite.